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Gritty Portraits of Self-Destruction From the Reservation's Edge

January 10, 1988|BOB SIPCHEN | Times Staff Writer

In the first portrait, photographed in 1980, Gary Charley is an angry young warrior with mean, swollen eyes, a defiant mane of hair and war-paint tattoos on his cheeks.

In the second portrait, shot a year later, his gaze is less dangerous.

And the third portrait shows Charley on his back, frozen dead in the ice of a mud puddle. The war is over. Alcohol, poverty and despair have brought down another brave.

This time-lapse of self-destruction appears in the latest book by photographer Marc Gaede, who earned his reputation shooting pretty pictures of the Southwest--landscapes reflecting the majesty of the country; portraits illuminating the dignity of the American Indians who inhabit it.

Powerful Images

But most of the images in this book are ugly.

"We come breathtakingly close to disastrous impropriety with this book," Gaede said as he sat in the living room of his La Canada home. "I'm sure bigots will latch onto these images. This book could do great damage if it's misconstrued."

"Bordertowns" is Gaede's personal vision of the tragedy that alcoholism fuels in the towns on the edges of Southwestern Indian reservations. Controversial from the outset, it was turned down by the publishers who printed Gaede's other books of photography, including "Images From the Southwest," and "Camera, Spade and Pen."

"It goes against the mystique of the Southwest," Gaede quotes one editor as saying.

But Gaede and his wife, Marnie, who edits his books and the accompanying text, were determined. So they published it themselves.

"Something needs to be done," Gaede said. "Too many people are being killed."

These days Gaede, 41, earns his living as an independent production manager, with films, cable-TV shows and 320 episodes of "Divorce Court" under his belt. But his ties to the Indian cultures of the Southwest are strong, he said.

He was born and reared in Tucson, and moved at age 10 to Flagstaff to live with a brother-in-law. An archeologist and curator of the Museum of Northern Arizona, the brother-in-law took Gaede with him on various archeological digs. They would live in tent camps for as long as five months at a time on the 15-million-acre Navajo reservations in New Mexico and along the Arizona-Utah border.

Navajos and Hopis

When he wasn't helping at the excavations, Gaede would attend sweat lodges and hunt rabbits with the Navajo children. When he lived at the museum, he would hang out with Hopis.

Gaede later earned a degree in anthropology and went on to serve a seven-year stint as curator of photography at the Museum of Northern Arizona, which is where he met Marnie, who also has an anthropology degree.

In 1980, Gaede opened an Indian art shop in Flagstaff, commuting between TV-industry jobs in Los Angeles. When in Flagstaff, and whenever he traveled to other border towns to buy or sell art, he would focus his camera on the faces and scenes he encountered. Later he began riding with the towns' small police forces, getting even closer to the violence Indians with drinking problems inflict upon each other when they leave the reservations--most of which prohibit the sale of liquor.

Gaede is quick to point out that Indians aren't the only people in whom alcohol triggers sickness, fighting and sometimes death. But in the border towns, the violence is magnified. In from the reservation, the Indians have no refuge when they get drunk. The problems take place in full public view.

The starkest images entered Gaede's lenses on the streets of Gallup, N.M. The captions alone hint at the story: "Like hell you'll get me in that cell!" "Stabbed in the chest." "Slashed across the face."

And during the town's annual "ceremonial," things get even worse, Gaede said. He recounted one evening's drive with the Gallup police:

"We ran 'Code 3,' foot-to-the-floor, for 3 1/2 hours . . . from one scene to another, from a drug bust, to a crash to a knifing on and on and on."

Then there were nights when crowds of hostile Indians would gather on the streets and lob rocks at the five or six officers the small Gallup force could muster. "It reminds you of the riots of the 1960s, 800 to 1,000 people going against the established forces."

"If anything (in the book), we played down how violent Gallup is," Gaede said.

Which is not to say the Gallup Chamber of Commerce would approve of "Bordertowns."

Gaede's ideas on the design of photography books were shaped, in part, in 1970, when he worked as a lab assistant to nature photographer Ansel Adams.

Adams believed that an image makes its most important artistic statement when it's "orchestrated" in a book, rather than when it appears in a gallery, Gaede said. The images in "Bordertowns" are orchestrated to build tension, to tell a story. "I put it together like a movie," he said.

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